Using subject headings

Subject headings are used in many databases and library catalogues. They are official terms that have been selected by specialists to describe the content of a document. This results in documents on the same topic being grouped together. You can quickly find items that discuss your research topic even when authors are using different terminology.

Example: One author uses the word “academic success” and a second author uses “educational achievement”. By using the subject heading “academic achievement”, you will retrieve both articles.

Make use of the subject headings or subject terms to:

A. Find new aspects of your topic.
By looking through the list of subject headings you may discover some interesting aspects of your topic.

B. Find related documents.
You’ve found a great article and want to find more documents on the same topic.

C. Focus your search to find more relevant documents.
If you’re pulling up a lot of non-related articles use the subject headings to focus your search.

Tip: Depending on the database, a list of subject terms may be found under Subject Headings, Thesaurus, Descriptors or List of Subject Terms. Be aware that not all databases make use of subject terms.


1.You’re researching a paper that has to touch on one aspect of obesity. Which one?
In the library catalogue do a search using obesity in the subject browsing field. This brings you to the list of subject headings starting with the word obesity.  Scan through and you’ll find related headings as well as more specific subject headings. You may decide to look into the economic aspects of obesity.

2.You’ve found a great book on bullying in the ebook central database and want to find more.
Take a look at the subjects assigned to the book.  By clicking on “Find Similar” the ebook central database will combine the first subject “Bullying in schools” with your other search terms. You’ll end up with a list of books that all touch on the topic of bullying in schools.

3.Your search on animal rights is bringing up too many off-topic articles.

One of the articles was on the surgery of the right limb of an animal! By using the database’s subject terms you can ensure that your search is on target.
In the database Academic Search Elite a search on animal rights yields over 1,300 articles. By scrolling down the results page you’ll find on the left side the “Subject: Thesaurus Term” box. It contains a list of subject headings.

The number of articles is now much smaller and they are all on the animal rights movement. Reminder : to make sure you actually will have access to the document itself, remember to check the “full text” box on search page top left.